By Derese Getachew
Ibsa Gutama’s poem, “Manew Ethiopiawi?” could be viewed as that historic manuscript where an ethno-nationalist deconstruction of being an Ethiopian started among Haile Sellasie’s students. Many begun to be convinced that Ethiopian nationalism reflected nothing but the politico-cultural imposition of Abyssinian culture and institutions over the rest of Ethiopia. Wallelijn’s piece on the ‘national question’ inspired by (if not emulated from) Stalin’s thesis of the national question furthered narratives of ethno-nationalism into conventional political rhetoric. Almost all of the Marxist Leninist parties hatched out of the students’ movement and the Ethiopian revolution (save for Wez League) recognized “the rights of nations, nationalities and people’s of Ethiopia to self-determination up to and including secession.” In all fairness, not only the EPRDF but all of its compatriots were singing the same song when Marxism Leninism was in vogue.
Today the triumph of ethno-nationalism in Ethiopia and the reconfiguration of the state along ethnic lines has led to a situation where nominal decentralization is wedded with an iron clad centralized party control and dominance. Ethnic federalism has neither quenched the thirst of ethno-nationalist organizations (such as the OLF) who regard the present government as nothing but the continuation of Abyssinan dominance, this time under Tigrayan hegemony. Nor did it appease the Ethiopian nationalists elite who have long opposed the ethno-federal experiment as a recipe for the dismemberment of the country. While both of these are unhappy about the current state of affairs, they were not willing to speak to each other until very recently. The story is now different. There is, for instance, a sober realization among Oromo intellectuals and the political elite that secession is not the solution.
Democratizing greater Ethiopia is for the greater good of the Oromo people. Unionists have also come to realize that unity does not simply mean ‘oneness’. It should not ride roughshod over other people’s language, culture, beliefs, economic and political liberties. In lieu, it should begin with embracing and celebrating these differences as features that define greater Ethiopia: the whole which is more than the sum of its parts. In short, almost all actors in town are beginning to realize that the problem is not just the opponent on the other side of the courtyard; it is the nature of the game that has been played so far.
Nothing could serve as a barometer of people’s political consciousness than the music they compose. In a country like Ethiopia, popular Art is like the Pew and Gallup polls of the west. Recently, Ethiopia is awash with lyrics that fuse two or more languages and melodies: Amharic and Oromiyfaa songs, Tigirnya and Amharic songs, Afar and Amharic songs, Hamer and Amharic songs, Somali and Amharic songs. Hip-hop hits of Gamo, Sidama, Wolaiyta and Guraghe songs and their popularity among the youth has far reaching meaning than entertainment. I think being Ethiopian is getting reconfigured. The people are crafting ways to harmonize (celebrate difference) while tuning a single melody (a united one). Three issues seem to preponderate in many of these renditions: love, mutual respect and a sense of togetherness as Ethiopians. Mind you, this version of Ethiopiawinet is way different than the one which was questioned by Ibssa Gutema. What is the final verdict? Divisiveness is running out of stamina in Ethiopia, its nemesis, however, is in the making.
Another factor worth considering here is urbanization. According to UNHABITAT (2008a:2), “Africa had 39.1 % of its population living in urban areas with significant geographic variations ranging from 22.7 % in East Africa (the lowest) to 57.3% (the highest) in Southern Africa”. Nevertheless, the process is featured by “disproportionately high concentrations of people and investments in the largest city, in most cases, the capital.” In Ethiopia, for instance, urban primacy is high where “In 2007, an estimated 22.5 % percent of Ethiopia’s total urban population lived in Addis Ababa and the city was more than ten times larger than the second largest city” (UNHABITAT (2008a:14) Urban centers like Addis Ababa are more than political capitals. They are the melting pots of the nation where businessmen, professionals, civil servants, and people from all corners of the country move to. They host market centers, universities, museums, galleries, theatre halls, sports facilities, squares, avenues and stadiums where ‘national consciousness’ is envisaged and celebrated. They represent cosmopolitanism and a liberal world view where ethnicity, creed, religious dispensation or political affinities are tempered and diluted by a broader sense of solidarity. Interfaith and interethnic tolerance in places like Dire Dawa could serve as an example here. More importantly, urbanism represents a way of living where achievement and individual merits are rewarded instead of birth, religious or ethnic rights (that some define as ‘primordial’ or ‘ascriptive’). Ethiopia is urbanizing! Other cities are catching up with Addis Ababa. These inter alia include Mekelle, Bahir Dar, Dessie, Adama, Jimma, Dire Dawa, Harar and Awassa. Rest assured this tide of urbanization sails against the politics of division.
Piggy bagged with this process of urbanization is the formation of an incipient middle class in Ethiopia. The term middle class usually represents the professional class of a nation whose income levels obviously vary depending on the wealth of the nation itself. Apart from earnings and educational background, however, the middle class is believed to be the class which invents, develops, reinforces and protects democratic values and principles. The stronger the middle class, the better the conditions for a democratic franchise. Ethiopia is churning out thousands and thousands of professionals not only form the AAU but also regional universities, private colleges and institutes. While many consider the latter as mere diploma and certificate mills, we have to realize the fact that people are being able to access higher education more than ever before. This is not to downplay the quality and competence problems of recent graduates from the new regional and private higher education institutions. The institutions have a long way to go. Be that as it may, they are tributaries to the ever widening middle class of the nation as a whole. There is a silent majority, a workforce which is joining the ranks of the civil service, the private sector, international and domestic non-governmental organizations, and aid agencies nationwide. The larger it becomes, the tighter its demands would be.
Today, Ethiopia is regarded as an ally of the free world. Its internal stability and political cohesion is important for Western allies who now have every reason to consider the Horn of Africa the next flashpoint in the struggle against extremism and international terror. We have Somalia which has long descended into a complete state collapse where ethnic, religious and economic warlords have long supplanted the Somali state. The Transitional Government of Somalia has some international backing but did not muster any political and strategic power within the borders of Somalia itself. In fact, it was nearly annihilated by the forces of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) had it not been for the intervention of Ethiopian forces. International sea piracy on the Red Sea straits has become commonplace and Al Shabab boasts its capacity to supply arms and manpower to Al Qaeda’s outpost in Yemen.
All of this may play in favor of the Addis Ababa regime in the short term. But we need to look beyond the EPRDF. Ethiopia’s strategic role in the Horn means the West would support (if not midwife) democratic transition in the country when the structural conditions are ripe to do so. The stake is too high. Letting the second largest population in Africa with one of the biggest armies in the continent crumble and adding another Somalia to the Horn would simply be unacceptable to the powers that be. Needless to state that the support would be calculated, looking at the balance of power within the country and aiming at ensuring a negotiated settlement of disparate political groupings. The onus of effecting such a condition would however remain in the hands of Ethiopia’s opposition politicians. Do they have what it takes? Let us remain hopeful.